One of the largest and most important plantations on Florida’s northeast coast was St. Joseph, whose owner, Joseph Mariano Hernandez, was one of the most distinguished and well-known planters of Florida. Hernandez was born in St. Augustine in 1788, of Minorcan parents, Martin and Dorotea Hernandez. At that time, during Spain’s occupation, Hernandez was a Spanish citizen, but he became a citizen of the United States in 1821, when Florida came under American sovereignty.
Hernandez married Anna Maria Williams, wealthy widow of Samuel Williams, of Orange Grove Plantation, in 1815, when he was 27 years old. Anna made a somewhat curious reference to this marriage in her will when she stated that, “by the particular advice of my best friends I was again induced to enter into the bonds of matrimony.”
While quite a young man Hernandez had studied law, probably in Havana, and developed a very busy law practice in Florida. His signature is to be found on countless documents in courthouse records, and one wonders how he managed to travel so frequently to Tallahassee and other parts of the wild, unmapped Florida frontier.
He owned three plantations, Bella Vista, Mala Compra and St. Joseph, and all three bordered the Matanzas River, five or six miles south of Pellicer’s Creek. He gave Bella Vista to his daughter Louisa and her husband, George Washington. Today, this is Washington Oaks State Park, a few miles south of Marineland on AlA Highway. Mala Compra (Bad Bargain), was a cotton plantation, and Hernandez’ country residence. There was a one and a half story framed house on this plantation with a coquina rock foundation “three feet deep, and thirty feet long by eighteen wide.” The cotton house at Mala Compra was large enough to hold 200,000 pounds of seed and 200 bales of ginned cotton.” Among other buildings was a “detached kitchen, corn house, cotton house, slave houses, and a driver’s house.” An extensive grove of sweet oranges, and many other trees were also on the plantation.
St. Joseph Plantation was three miles south of Mala Compra, and was a successful sugar plantation. It had scientifically drained fields with canals four, five, and seven feet wide, that stretched from one-half mile to one and one-half miles in length. “Two hundred acres were cross-ditched with ditches two feet wide and two deep.” There was a large curing house, boiling house, and engine house, for the making of sugar, and the equipment consisted of one ten-horsepower, rotary-valve engine and boiler, and one horizontal roller mill for grinding cane.
Hernandez was very active in Florida politics, and in 1822 President Monroe appointed him one of the thirteen “most fit and discreet men of the territory,” to compose Florida’s first Legislative Council. Several years later he was elected as Florida’s first delegate to Congress. When Hernandez suspected that the Seminoles were ready to go on the warpath he appealed to the Secretary of War for arms for the citizens of Florida. After the war began he became a brigadier general of the Florida militia, and was instrumental in the capture of some of the important Seminoles – including Osceola, their war leader. This highly intelligent and elusive Indian had sent word that he was willing to meet the white officers at a council near Fort Peyton, in October 1837. Fort Peyton was erected by General Thomas Sidney Jesup at Moultrie Creek, a few miles south of St. Augustine.
Although it had been agreed that the Indians were to come to Fort Peyton under a flag of truce, General Jesup ordered Hernandez to seize them, and hold them captive. Osceola arrived at the council with 71 warriors, six women, and four Indian Negroes. Hernandez had with him two companies of mounted men and some dragoons – a force of about 250 men. A white flag was flying from the Indian camp, but Osceola appeared to have a premonition of betrayal. It was said he “choked up with emotion”, and asked another Indian, Coa Hadjo, to speak for him. After an exchange of words between Hernandez and Coa Hadjo, Hernandez gave a pre-arranged signal, and the Indians were taken prisoner.
General Jesup came under severe criticism for his decision to ignore the white peace flag, and twenty years later he was still writing justification for his conduct. Hernandez had acted under orders from Jesup, but to this day he is sometimes censured for his part in the capture of Osceola.
Hernandez’ plantations, Mala Compra and St. Joseph, were occupied by the troops during the Seminole War, and the Indians retaliated by destroying both plantations. In a rare book, Sketches of the Seminole War and Sketches During a Campaign, by Lieutenant W. W. Smith, there is an interesting description of St. Joseph Plantation after its destruction by the Seminoles. Lieutenant Smith, in command of a detachment of soldiers, made a dreary, hot march to the plantation through miles of barren wilderness. Their black guide lost his way for a time, and this made the tired soldiers irritable and suspicious. Eventually, they came upon an abandoned overseer’s house where they rested for a while, and the men were happy to find a shed of pumpkins and a field of sugar cane. As their rations had given out, the men lost no time in loading up with these luxuries. Smith gave a humorous description of one of the men “toting two huge pumpkins under each arm with a most complacent grin of delight upon his countenance.”
As they continued on the march to St. Joseph Plantation, Lieutenant Smith remarked, “It was vain to keep the men from loading themselves with pumpkins and sticks of sugar cane. The rear was straggling ever so far; sticks of sugar cane were shooting out in every direction from haversacks, pockets and belts, and some were carried in triumph on the tops of bayonets. Every now and then’ a pumpkin would be tossed into the wagon, and the road was strewed with them as they jolted out again . . .”
Later, when they arrived at St. Joseph they discovered three other detachments of soldiers were already camped there. “The sugar mill, which had cost $40,000, was burnt, and the barn had been broken open, and a great quantity of corn was lying out exposed to the weather. They had been living gloriously on hominy, vegetables and beef.” The lieutenant didn’t have a tent to sleep in, and so made himself comfortable in one of the slave huts that had not been burned. He wrote that the hut was made entirely out of palmetto leaves, “thatched from top to bottom, and had only one small low aperture to crawl in by; it looked very much like an oven, but I found when I got into it that it did not feel like an oven.” There was no door to close in this unusual hut, and during the night some of the soldiers, “pulled down half of the hovel over my head to make some bedding for their tents.”
Officers in the militia and army sometimes found relief from arduous and dangerous duty in the field by attending social affairs in St. Augustine. An assistant army surgeon, Samuel Forry, described a grand party at General Hernandez’ home in St. Augustine: “Waltzes and Spanish dances were the order of the day. After midnight we had quite a splendid supper. About sixty ladies were in attendance, and some of them were passably handsome. I have never, however, participated in such amusements, but last night I most anxiously wished I could Waltz, for no other reason than merely to feel and be felt by the ladies.” Forry mentioned that the captive, handsome Seminole, Coacoochee (Wildcat), “was the lion of the night, attracting the special attention of the ladies.” He remarked that “Coacoochee also drank immensely; but by being led between two men, he contrived to maintain the perpendicular.”
After the Seminole War ended Hernandez wrote that he was “about rebuilding my sugar mill, the engine is totally destroyed.” He bought an engine for a new sugar mill from “Watchman’s Foundry” in Baltimore, and engaged Peter R. Walker to rebuild the sugar mill and a saw mill. Walker was to receive sixty dollars a month to put up the engine, and to superintend the construction. Hernandez was not satisfied with Walker’s work, and refused to pay him. Walker brought suit against Hernandez but died before a settlement was made.
General Joseph Mariano Hernandez died in June, 1856, at Matanzas, Cuba. The ruins of the St. Joseph sugar mill were left for many years in a heavily wooded, isolated area, which protected them from thoughtless vandals. Then when Palm Coast, Flagler County, was being developed, these important, historic ruins were destroyed by the developers.
ASHES ON THE WIND
The Story of the Lost Plantations
by Alice Strickland
A Self Tour
The Volusia County Historical Commission